In Depth

Applauding the Best of TV Health Reports

The Association of Health Care Journalists presents its awards at this week’s conference in Washington, honoring the best health reporting of 2007 in 10 categories covering print, broadcast and online media. The top TV winners are a diverse group covering a broad range of the health care universe.

In the stories that follow, TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman profiles this year’s AHCJ award recipients in the television categories.

AHCJ is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing public understanding of health care issues. The association and its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism are based at the Missouri School of Journalism.

What constitutes a health care story is not the role of the AHCJ. “Folks determine that when they submit a story,” said Julie Appleby of USA Today, who co-chairs the AHCJ contest. “There is a broad range of health care stories. We consider anything from a health care policy story to the latest treatment for this illness or that.”

The AHCJ began presenting awards in 2004. “We started the awards because so many of the contests out there are sponsored by special-interest groups. We wanted to produce something that was for journalists, by journalists, not influenced by any outside money and focused on health care,” said Ms. Appleby. “I don’t know of any other contests that concentrate strictly on health care. Others may have a category or two, but ours is entirely on health care.”

The TV division includes categories for both small markets and large markets. “We’ve been trying to figure out the right mix, but we do want to differentiate because obviously people in the top 20 markets and the lower 20 markets have different resources available to them, so that was a way to compensate for some of those differences,” she explained.

“The caliber of entries this year has been really good. There were nearly 400 entries—that shows health journalism is really a very vibrant part of journalism in the U.S. today. It’s so important that we support and encourage it because people are very, very concerned about health care.”

The awards are judged by 44 journalists; to ensure the integrity of the awards, board members and contest committee members are not eligible to enter the contest. “We have pre-screeners who get all the entries from a category. They go through them and separate the top 10 to 12 that they think are the best. We send those to the final judges. They decide first place, second place and third place,” said Ms. Appleby.

In the TV/radio top-20 markets, first place went CNN for a feature by Elizabeth Cohen, Jennifer Pifer and Amy Morelly, “Where’s Molly?” It used the documentary of the same name by Jeff Daly as the basis for a story about how for decades, tens of thousands of American children were locked in institutions and erased from their families because they were retarded or mentally disabled. Their piece shone a light on a man who defied legal hurdles and his family’s wishes to find Molly, his little sister, who’d been institutionalized when she was just 3 years old. Fifty years later, they were reunited.

The second-place winner in the top-20 category was “Nick’s Choice,” by Joe Fryer and Brett Akagi. These two Minnesota reporters, for NBC affiliate KARE-TV in Minneapolis, shared the story of 9-year-old Nick Nelson, who was born with the rare popliteal pterygium syndrome, in which webs form on the backs of the legs, preventing him from straightening them. Although he was just a child, Nick wanted his doctor to amputate his right leg after 15 surgeries failed to straighten it. KARE’s story followed his journey.

The third-place winner in the top-20 category recognized a story about the toxic trailers given to Katrina victims that turned out to be made with materials that are emitting formaldehyde. HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports” told that story, including the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was aware of the problem before it delivered a single trailer. Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather collaborated on the comprehensive report with Chandra Simon and Resa Matthews.

In the below-top-20 markets, the winners included two radio pieces. First place went to “North Carolina Voices: Diagnosing Health Care” by North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC. In a series of reports, journalist Emily Hanford discussed how diabetes in eastern North Carolina, a poor, rural part of the state, has been on the rise and why.

The other radio winner, WFCR Public Radio, earned third place for “Love, War and PTSD: Anna and Peter Mohan” by reporter Karen Brown. The piece told the story of a young couple, Peter and Anna Mohan, whose lives were changed forever when Peter returned from a tour of duty in Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Second place went to WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, an ABC affiliate, for “Care-less Denials.” I-Team reporters Hagit Limor and Phil Drechsler discovered that Anthem, a major insurance company in Ohio, had cut the reimbursement rates midyear so severely that many psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors had either dropped off the panel or wouldn’t accept new patients, leaving mentally ill patients in the lurch.

Prizes
All the winners of the AHCJ award receive a signed and framed certificate. First-place winners also receive $500 plus registration and hotel accommodations at the annual conference.

“The first-place winners sit on a panel and discuss how they got that story, because part of what we’re trying to do here is help other journalists think of story ideas, think about resources they can use in their communities to do similar stories. We want them to share how they did it, the research, the obstacles, that type of thing,” said Ms. Appleby.

Awards will be presented at the AHCJ luncheon on March 29. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, will be the keynote speaker.